For Kendall and Kylie Jenner’s latest collection for their clothing brand, Kendall + Kylie, the sisters printed Instagrams of their own faces in neon colors on top of images and logos of Metallica, Pink Floyd and, most controversially, Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. Cue Internet backlash.
kendall jenner selling a shirt with her face overlayed on top of tupac is literally racism and i won't stand for it
— Lauren Ablondi Olivo (@laurenablondi) June 28, 2017
So who's gonna start flaming Kendall and Kylie for putting their trash initials over Tupac's face? pic.twitter.com/0O6VhI9mUE
— keely (@KeelyRink) June 28, 2017
Tupac did not fake his own death to be put on a shirt with Kylie Jenner
— dani (@danixicana) June 29, 2017
The $125 T-shirts were hit with accusations of cultural appropriation and exploitation of black culture for profit on Twitter and Instagram — and is not the first Jenner-Kardashian project to draw that reaction.
Seemingly in response to the social media uproar, the Kendall + Kylie apparel site removed the Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. shirts, but still lists the Metallica, Pink Floyd, and Ozzy Osborne shirts. The Kendall + Kylie brand did not return Yahoo Style’s requests for comment, but Kendall Jenner posted a statement on Twitter:
“These designs were not well thought out and we deeply apologize to anyone that has been upset and/or offended, especially to the families of the artists. We are huge fans of their music and it was not our intention to disrespect these cultural icons in any way. The tee shirts have been pulled from retail and all images have been removed. We will use this as an opportunity to learn from these mistakes and again, we are very sorry.”
In addition to the societal and moral issues raised, there’s also a legal matter worth exploring. How is it that the Jenners are able to put these artists’ likenesses on T-shirts at all? It’s a complicated copyright matter dependent on a few different factors, according to Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute.
First, different states have different laws surrounding protected materials. For example, California recognizes postmortem rights while New York terminates those rights upon death. But those laws are counteracted by free-speech laws, Scafidi explains to Yahoo Style, which would allow the Jenners to use the images if they’ve altered them sufficiently by legal standards. Whether any legal action comes of this also depends on who owns the rights to the images.
Christiane Schuman Campbell — a partner at Duane Morris law firm in Philadelphia, which specializes in intellectual property — says while there probably isn’t a copyright or trademark protection on the musicians’ faces themselves, their estates have an interest in the matter.
“There is the issue of: in what light are these guys being portrayed? Tupac and Biggie are icons — a personal view, but I dare anyone to disagree with me,” Schuman Campbell tells Yahoo Style. “They are evocative of a genre of music (rap) in its most authentic form (not ‘watered down’ by pop) and yes, probably black and rap culture. Would these guys want to be exploited by the Jenners? I think probably not. That is something the estates would want to control.”
Voletta Wallace, mother of Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., posted a response to the Jenner’s merchandise on Instagram, writing, “The disrespect of these girls to not even reach out to me or anyone connected to the estate baffles me. I have no idea why they feel they can exploit the deaths of 2pac and my Son Christopher to sell a t-shirt. This is disrespectful , disgusting, and exploitation at its worst.”
It’s hardly surprising the Jenners would try to get in on the merch game. Band merch has been wildly popular in the last year as everyone from their half-brother-in-law Kanye West to Justin Bieber cashed in on the trend that ballooned in 2016 and has kept mall retailers like Hot Topic in business while other stores struggle.
To be sure, this isn’t the first time Tupac-stamped merchandise has caused legal trouble for retailers. Earlier this month, the photographer who captured Tupac’s visage for two Rolling Stone magazine covers sued Forever21 and Urban Outfitters for copyright infringement.
Speaking of Rolling Stone, the magazine was first to report that The Doors, a band also featured on the Kendall + Kylie shirt collection, sent a cease and desist letter to the Jenner siblings.
Whatever comes of it legally or otherwise, it likely won’t reflect well on the Jenner brand. Scafidi says: “It’s possible to thread the needle of legally and culturally acceptable unauthorized use — but attempts to use celebrity images on apparel without permission more often wind up in a face plant.”
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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style + Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.